Friday, September 7, 2018

Book News: Politician in Uniform

Over the past fifteen years, scholarly and popular appreciation of the Civil War career of Lew Wallace has undergone quite a transformation. General acceptance of commentary condemning, or even mocking, Wallace as the incompetent political general who was unconscionably "late" at Shiloh has been replaced by far more nuanced, and more positive, assessments of many aspects of the high-ranking citizen-general's Civil War service. Both Gail Stephens's Shadow of Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War (2010) and Charles Beemer's "My Greatest Quarrel with Fortune": Major General Lew Wallace in the West, 1861-1862 (2015) largely laud Wallace's performance as fast-learning field commander while also taking into consideration those significant personal flaws that often made the general his own worst enemy. Both of these books are excellent, and there are even more out there from the period. Unread by me are Scapegoat of Shiloh: The Distortion of Lew Wallace's Record by U. S. Grant by Kevin Getchell (2013) and Ray Boomhower's The Sword & the Pen: A Life of Lew Wallace (2005).

Now it appears that there's yet another Lew Wallace military study in the works. If the official description is an accurate measure of its arguments and contents, Christopher R. Mortenson's Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War (OU Press, 2019) shares similar themes with the earlier works mentioned above. "Combining military biography, historical analysis, and political insight, the book offers an expanded and balanced view of Wallace’s military career—and offers the reader a new understanding of the experience of a voluntary general like Lew Wallace."

More from the description: "A rising politician from Indiana, Wallace became a Civil War general through his political connections. While he had much success as a regimental commander, he ran into trouble at the brigade and division levels. A natural rivalry and tension between West Pointers and political generals might have accounted for some of this, but many of his difficulties, as Mortenson shows us, were of Wallace’s own making. A temperamental officer with a “rough” conception of manhood, Wallace often found his mentors wanting, disrespected his superiors, and vigorously sought opportunities for glorious action in the field, only to perform poorly when given the chance." From this it seems that Mortenson doesn't quite rate Wallace's generalship as high as the Stephens and Beemer works did, and it will be interesting to see where the author believes Wallace to have often performed poorly.

That said, Mortenson's study is not without recognition of Wallace's successes. "Despite his flaws, Mortenson notes, Wallace contributed both politically and militarily to the war effort—in the fight for Fort Donelson and at the Battle of Shiloh, in the defense of Cincinnati and southern Indiana, and in the administration of Baltimore and the Middle Department. Detailing these and other instances of Wallace’s success along with his weaknesses and failures, Mortenson provides an unusually thorough, and instructive picture of this complicated character in his military service." I've found the University of Oklahoma Press military biographies of Civil War era figures generally appealing, so I'm looking forward to reading this one.

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